What Foods are Good for My Mental Health & Chronic Illness?

I was reading an industry magazine put out by my association (British Columbia Association of Clinical Counsellors) and this issue was heavily focused on mental health for chronic illness, which I was obviously excited about. In it there was a 1 page article/ad for a book about BRAIN Foods, or which foods are specifically good for mental health. I noticed some overlap with foods that are good for autoimmune disease as well, so I decided to do a little more research and try to figure out which foods would be good for both. While having this knowledge can definitely help my clients, it is also helpful for myself.

Vegan dark chocolate mousse was my birthday dessert in Costa Rica in May 2019.

Before I get into what I’ve found as overlap (not everything does overlap to be clear, there are a lot of foods that came up for one or the other), I want to state that a lot of this depends on what kind of diet you follow. Someone who does AIP vs. Paleo vs. Keto, etc. will all look at this list and find things they can or cannot eat. What I’ve found works for me is to just cut out foods when I notice they don’t make me feel well. So I don’t eat gluten or dairy or meat (except fish) because those are the main things that bother me. However, knowing what can have more benefits from the list of things I do eat is helpful to know. I also want to say, that I am not perfect, nor do I try to be. I went to my brother’s wedding in another city, and while I did try to eat from my go-to list as often as possible, there were times (like at the wedding itself) where I did indulge in dairy, meat and gluten (I surprisingly didn’t hurt too badly after). I personally find it easier to stick to my diet (or rather, way of eating) if I don’t put pressure on myself to be perfect all the time (when I cook for myself I really do stick to it though).

All that being said, here are the overlap mental health and autoimmune foods I found from several lists and articles:

  • Fruits, such as blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, etc. (basically all the berries) – I love berries
  • Vegetables, such as broccoli, kale, and cauliflower – broccoli is often a staple for me
  • Fish, such as salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines – all of which are high in omega-3s and salmon is my fave
  • Nuts and seeds – sunflower seeds specifically came up on a list and I was like ooh reminds me of playing softball as a kid.
  • Sweet potatoes – literally another staple for me
  • Healthy fats, such as avocados, olive oil and coconut oil – I usually cook with avocado oil and I love avocados
  • Turmeric – my former naturopath recommended turmeric tea, which I find to be a lovely way to have more of it.
  • Green tea – I go through periods where I drink a lot of green tea
  • Dark chocolate – pretty much the only “snack” food on the lists and honestly, I got used to the taste (though I still prefer milk chocolate)
  • Whole grains – again, not something I eat anymore, but it’s definitely a better option than “white bread,” etc.
  • Coffee – I was surprised by this one, and I do love me my morning coffee. I do recommend no coffee after 2pm though as it can drastically affect sleep.

So, while you don’t have to eat everything from this list, it is probably helpful to try to include some of these foods regularly to improve brain functioning, decrease depression (depression is linked to inflammation in the brain much like AI is linked to inflammation in the body), and decrease illness symptoms. It can also be really helpful to practice mindful eating – check out my guided version here.

I love food, so hopefully this also helps you to make the most of it!

Why is Emotion Regulation Important For My Physical Health?

I’m going to be the first to admit that when I was younger I often struggled with my emotion regulation. This often came to the forefront in the context of relationships, because I had a “short temper.” I would get angry and yell, pretty quickly. I could always calm down, but I came to realize the older I got that I had to remove myself from the situation in order to get myself to be more calm. I had a really bad breakup geez, almost 5 years ago now, that I also had a difficult time controlling my emotions, especially sadness and rumination. That last time, that was the lesson for me. But we’ll get to that in moment…

A transition from a poor emotion regulation period to a better one.

First, let’s talk about what emotion regulation is, because I know that some of you may never have really heard the term before. Emotion regulation is our attempts to control the experience, expression, time and scale of our emotions. It has been long known to be important for our mental health, and only more recently explored for physical health. These are also skills that many of us learn as children, but often do require practice throughout our lifetimes. I worked in retail for a long time and as I reflect back I can see how customers yelling at me, for let’s be honest, very small things (I had a lady yell at me once because a competitor had an item for a dollar less but she didn’t tell me before she paid – I happily would have matched it… and by yelled I mean screamed bloody murder) and I realize they were exhibiting very poor emotion regulation, which is more harmful for themselves than the stress it caused me.

If you’re yelling at retail workers (or servers, etc) you might want to check on your emotion regulation skills.

Here’s what we know about emotion regulation and physical health:

  1. better emotion regulation impacts our overall physical health positively
  2. difficulties with emotion regulation, especially with prolonged negative emotion, can make you more at risk at developing heart disease
  3. emotional suppression and rumination (part of poor emotion regulation) cause lower energy, greater physical pain, greater disability, and overall lower quality of health
  4. difficulties with emotion regulation make it difficult to engage in self-care and health-related behaviours necessary for managing chronic illness
  5. better emotion regulation makes it easier to manage stressors in our lives, meaning less flares and relapses of illness
  6. better emotion regulation increases medication adherence and sticking with diet and exercise regimes

Back to my story. So, I had this breakup and this very poor emotion regulation following it, and then I had a flare so terrible I ended up in the hospital for pain. I was released the same day, and the pain came down a bit, but it really went back to normal levels when I was able to come out of the depressive funk I was in. I can safely say I have not had a problem regulating my emotions since… and I mean really who wants a flare like that again? So, we’ve answered the question why, and there are lots of “how tos” in regulating emotions, but I’m going to leave you with one to try out.

A much more emotionally regulated period

Learning to self-soothe. Again, many of us learn this skill as children, but not everyone does, and often we do less of it as we get older. Some ideas for practicing self-soothing are to do meditations such as loving kindness (click here) or a relaxation practice like progressive muscle relaxation (click here). Expressive writing about the experience (click here), breathing exercises (click here), and self-care strategies like taking a bubble bath, are more ways to lear to self-soothe. There are many other strategies online so I suggest a Google search if you’re looking for more!

Take care, and keep making the most of it!
Kelsey

Spoonie Stress

It’s not really a surprise that Spoonies have more stress than healthy folks. Chronic illness and chronic pain warriors just have a lot more to deal with. Coming up with ways to relieve stress is important, and something I try to pay attention to. As stress accumulates it can lead to mental health problems, and quite often, especially with autoimmune diseases, flares. Today I thought we’d focus on some causes of stress and I’ll give some ideas (that work for me) for you to try out to see if they help at all.

Stress is an evolutionary response.

First, I thought we’d start off with a few definitions. The reason I want to give these is that often as a therapist-in-training, I see that people don’t really understand the meanings of the words they use, nor are they aware of the difference appropriate emotional responses and ones that don’t fit the situation.

  • stress – normal, physiological reaction caused by the fight-flight-freeze response in our brains, alerting us that something needs our attention. It’s neither good nor bad, but is a signal telling us that we need to act on something. podcast
  • anxiety – “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure” (American Psychological Association). Anxiety is also not inherently good or bad. It’s another natural response of the fight-flight-freeze part of our brain. It’s also normal and part of what makes us human. There is no way to be totally free of anxiety. Fear, on the other hand can be extremely protective and it can be easily confused with anxiety. podcast
    • Anxiety disorder: anxiety that is out of proportion with the situation, and is long-lasting and severe can indicate an anxiety disorder. Someone with an anxiety disorder has “recurring, intrusive thoughts or concerns” (APA)
  • depression: an emotional disorder that can include feelings of sadness, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, and low energy and motivation. Sadness is a common emotion that is important to our functioning. Depression occurs when sadness doesn’t just “go away” on its own. Both anxiety disorders and depression are helped with psychological treatments. blog, podcast
  • trauma – “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea” (APA). I’ve heard this one be misused often, so just be aware of whether you’re actually experiencing trauma. This can also be helped with psychological treatments.
Understanding mental health concepts can be helpful for managing it.

Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way. What are some common causes of stress in Spoonies?

  • physical symptoms – flares, pain, and basically any other annoying and/or debilitating symptom that comes with your chronic illness. blog
  • medical gaslighting – when a doctor or healthcare professional dismisses your pain and/or symptoms. podcast
  • interpersonal relationships – difficulties with your partner, family, or friends often stemming from a lack of understanding of your illness. blog
  • finances/insurance – even with insurance there is a cost of medications and other treatments that may not be covered or give you as much coverage as you need. blog
Side effect from my hip arthroscopy that definitely caused me some stress.

These are of course, just a few, and you may experience a lot of other stressors depending on your illness and overall life situation. The point out reducing stressors like this is to improve your overall quality of life. So, here are some suggestions that I’ve found to be helpful for each of these (I’m going to link some of my other posts and podcast episodes in case you want more in-depth information).

  • Mindfulness, exercise, sleep, and diet. This means daily practice of whatever way you stay present. Getting whatever type of exercise is accessible during the day (even if it’s a short walk). Practicing good sleep hygiene. And eating as healthy a diet as you can. podcast, podcast, podcast, podcast (yes, one for each of these).
  • Being a self-advocate when it comes to your health and knowing your rights. The medical gaslighting podcast episode I mentioned earlier goes into being a self-advocate. For disability rights check out this podcast.
  • Effective communication and emotional regulation. We can’t control other people but we can definitely control ourselves, even if our emotions are high. podcast
  • Budgeting, budgeting, budgeting. I am without health insurance for the first time in many years. And yes, I live in Canada where healthcare is “Free” (with the exceptions of medications, dentistry, and adjunct care such as physio/chiro/naturopath/massage/etc). Yet I’ve seen the chiropractor twice in the past 3 months (with another appointment today) and gone for a massage. I’ve very meticulously budgeted these in because they are so helpful. The blog post mentioned for finances incorporates budgeting.
There are lots of ways to decrease stress. I enjoy some light exercise in nature.

On top of all this, practicing self-care (podcast) is very helpful. If you don’t like the term “self-care” because it’s been waaaay overused in the media than maybe think of it is as “ways to improve my overall health.” It includes domains of : physical, emotional, intellectual, social, spiritual, and work. It is also incredibly helpful in reducing stress levels. I’m going to be hosting a self-care challenge starting on April 24 on the premium blog. To sign up for the challenge it is only $5 and you get 4 weekly premium posts, motivation for the challenge, ideas and help with the challenge, and an opportunity to be featured on the blog and/or podcast! Stay tuned for more!

Until next week Spoonies, keep making the most of it!

Pain Scales – The Enemy of Chronic Pain Warriors

Literally my least favourite question when I go into any doctor or specialist appointment is, “what is your pain like today?” or “on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the worst ever, how’s your pain right now?” To someone with chronic pain, these are the most useless, arbitrary questions. Here’s the thing, I understand why doctors and other healthcare professionals ask the question. They want to get a gauge on if your pain is better or worse than it has been in the past. It totally makes sense. However, there are a few things about chronic pain (and pain in general) that aren’t taken into account with this questions.

  1. My perception of what a “10” is may be higher or lower than your perception of what that is.
  2. I’m not always entirely sure what number I should give. Like really, what is the difference between a “6” and a “7”?
  3. Often pain changes throughout the day, so just because I give it a “4” right now, doesn’t mean that it won’t be an “8” in half an hour.
Hm… I’m smiling and happy in both pictures and yet my pain is a “0” on the left, and a “7-8” on the right.

And yet, this is always the first question asked at any appointment. Sometimes I literally just want to say “I don’t know.!” How many of you feel this way to? Plus, sometimes there is this need to want to give a higher number so that the pain is taken more seriously and not just dismissed. Here’s the thing that healthcare professionals often miss – there are better ways to describe pain than using a 1-10 scale. For example, “what type of pain are you experiencing/do you experience?” “What times of day are worst for pain?” “What activities or circumstances do you notice more pain or less pain?” “Are there any points in the day when you feel little to no pain?” And so on. These questions are easier to answer, and honestly, give a more realistic perspective of my pain than me guessing at a number to give my doctor.

Just gonna throw in the random deer visiting a retirement home across the street from me.

The main model used in medicine (and psychology) right now is the biopsychosocial model (except sometimes doctors forget to use it when talking about chronic pain it seems). For those of you not familiar with this, it is the interplay between biological and psychosocial causes (or maintenance) of a medical (or psychological condition). When applying this model to chronic pain, we look at the biological causes of an illness or injury, and how psychosocial factors maintain or increase the physical sensations of pain. It’s that mind-body connection. Here’s an example: the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) system in your brain has been associated with several chronic pain syndromes including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, and MS. It is one of the biological causes of pain (though not necessarily the only). Psychological factors that can maintain or increase this pain include feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Social factors and behaviours that maintain and increase pain include door diet and nutrition, lack of exercise, and substance use (including smoking). Stress is another major psychosocial factor associated with chronic pain. So, rather than asking what are pain is on a scale from 1-10, looking at these factors is likely more productive in both understanding and managing pain!

Image from: https://www.practicalpainmanagement.com/treatments/psychological/biopsychosocial-approach
The paragraph on the biopsychosocial model is cited from this article.

Let’s talk about pain management. Whether you do this on your own, or with the help of your healthcare team, here are some ways to improve your pain management (because let’s face it, chronic pain is unlikely to magically go away):

  • medication compliance – taking all medication as prescribed!
  • addressing psychological factors – such as anxiety – this could be through relaxation and meditative techniques or even exercise, or going to see a psychotherapist
  • utilizing interdisciplinary healthcare teams – do you have a family doctor? A specialist for your illness or injury? A psychotherapist? A physical and/or occupational therapist? Anyone else who can help you with your pain? (I also have a naturopath and chiropractor for example).
Make a therapist part of your healthcare team! We’re here to help!
(just noting that I’m a therapist-in-training right now)

For anyone reading this who is not a chronic pain warrior, please remember that pain isn’t in our heads, and telling us to just deal with it isn’t helpful. In fact it can be stigmatizing, and people with chronic pain always face stigma because of a lack of understanding. We may laugh, smile and have fun, and yet be in pain at the same time. The things are not mutually exclusive. I’m going to link a few episodes of my podcast that complement this post below. For now, keep making the most of it everyone!

Mental Health and Chronic Illness

The “I Suck” Feeling

Locating Our Inner Strength

How Stress and Anxiety Manifest in the Body

Holistic Approaches to Chronic Pain